Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Out of the mouth of a Jew

Posted by robf on June 6, 2007

What are we to make of the history of the Bible as described in 1 Nephi 13:22-29? According to these verses, we seem to have the following timeline:

1–the “record of the Jews, which contains the covenants fo the Lord” as well as “many of the prophecies of the holy prophets” “proceeded forth from the mouth of a Jew”
2–At that point, the record “contained the fullness of the gospel of the Lord” and are considered to be “pure”.
3–“These things go forth from the Jews in purity unto the Gentiles.” They go forth “by the hand of the twelve apostles of the Lamb”
4–The “great and abominable church” is formed and takes away “many plain and precious things” from the book.
5–Only then does the book “goeth forth unto all the nations of the Gentiles”

How historically accurate is this depiction of the formation and transmission of the Bible? Who is the Jew that the record proceeds forth from? Is this one particular historical figure, or is this to be taken more loosely as refering to “the holy prophets” or another group? At what point is this book pure, and when does it lose “many plain and precious things?” Since the apostles are mentioned, is this at some point during the early Christian era?

Historical studies of the formation and transmission of the biblical texts would appear to provide a much more detailed account of this process of text formation and trasmission–but perhaps without a single historical figure whose mouth could proceed the “record of the Jews”. Scholars might also be hard pressed to find a time when the text itself could be considered “pure”. What might “purity” mean in this context, and how might it be related to containing a “fullness of the gospel?” Some would argue that

So, to end where I began, what are we to make of these passages? Are they useful as history? To what degree are they supported by our historical understanding of these things, and to what use are they to us? Does this account add anything that we couldn’t get from a modern historical view?

6 Responses to “Out of the mouth of a Jew”

  1. Robert C. said

    Fascinating post and questions, Rob. Your penultimate paragraph seems to be missing something (the last sentence leaves us hanging!).

    Two other big questions this chapter raises for me are: (1) How are we to interpret the “great and abominable church”? I think BRM and many others identified this with the Catholic church, but that interpretation seems to have been explicitly challenged by recent Church leaders—hopefully someone else (m&m?!) can provide quotes…. (2) Who are the “seed of [Nephi’s] brethren” who are scattered by the Gentiles? It seems this has traditionally been interpreted as Native Americans, but again Church leaders have recently backed away from that interpretation (following recent controversy over DNA testing, which I haven’t followed very carefully…).

    Also, I think this chapter is particularly interesting in light of the Documetary Hypothesis. That is, I’m inclined to think that whatever the redacting was before the time of Christ, it seems that 1 Nephi 14 is implying that such redacting left the “fulness of the gospel” pretty much in tact, and that the most critical parts of the Bible (assuming this is referring to the Bible…) were not removed until sometime after the Gospel was taken to the Gentiles.

    Another issue this has interesting but ambiguous (at least to me…) implications regarding the two-source hypothesis—was there perhaps an original (Jewish) Q document that was not corrupt? 1 Nephi 14 actually makes me much more sensitive to the very speculative nature of most scholarly textual theories. So, rather than asking “to what degree are [these passages] supported by our historical understanding of these things,” I’d be inclined to ask how these passages help us understand our historical understanding, and vice versa. For example, if we don’t find much corruption of the text between the time of the earliest documents and the KJV (my sense is that this is generally the case, but don’t take my word for it…), then we should look earlier in history for such corruption (i.e. the first few decades rather than centuries after Christ’s death…). But thinking about all of this just makes me more frustrated that I haven’t got around to reading FARMS recent Early Christians in Disarray (which, based on reviews, seems to take argue for this very early view of apostasy)….

  2. robf said

    Another good read, emphasizing the many (hundreds of thousands) of textual changes made to the New Testament texts before the KJV is Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (see NPR story about it here).

  3. Perhaps primarily because my wife and I are working together through Derrida’s Of Grammatology right now, the explicit gap between the mouth of the Jew and the record that goes to the Gentiles jumps out at me. That is, the question of corruption might be read in terms of this disconnect between the spoken and the written word. Might the point be not that the written word was corrupted (through textual changes, etc.) but that the written word, by its very nature, lends itself to diverse readings and interpretations? Or might this point to the problem being related to a Gentile reading of a fundamentally Jewish text? When it is read (aloud) and thus “out of the mouth of a Jew,” it was plain and simple; but when it comes to the Gentiles, it is pure gibberish?

    The more I study the Book of Mormon carefully, the more I’m convinced that what was once a “pure” book, easy to be interpreted, has become for the Latter-day Saints an almost impossible text, something we cannot even begin to think about clearly. Sometimes I have to wonder how much “corruption” is a question of a simple inability to read carefully, to question our own presuppositions in reading. And, to take up Jim’s argument in his contribution to Early Christians in Disarray, how are we to make or keep covenants faithfully if we cannot even understand the language (and therefore presuppositions) in which they are offered to us? Reading and covenant seem ultimately to go hand in hand…

  4. joelmartin said

    What ‘plain and precious thing’ are in the BoM that are not in the Bible?

  5. robf said

    Joel, without knowing your background, its hard to know how to answer this one for you. There are a lot of teachings that are in the BoM that aren’t as clear in the Bible, and lots of ‘plain and precious things’ about the priesthood, ordinances, etc.

  6. And who knows what plain and precious things are in what remains sealed of the Book of Mormon?

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